Turning us into a nation full of suspects

In the latest in spiked’s series on laws fit for the scrapheap, Tim Black argues for the UK’s snooper’s charter: the RIP Act.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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In response to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s ‘Your Freedom’ initiative, spiked contributors are putting forward suggestions for which illiberal laws should be consigned to the shredding machine of history. Here, Tim Black makes the case for scrapping the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

‘A man’s home is his castle’. Rarely has this 400-year-old quipped defence against the arbitrary exercise of state power seemed quite as quaint as it does today. Because whatever else a man’s home is, whatever else he feels his private sphere to be, it is certainly not impermeable. In fact, due to a whole raft of legislation over the past 10 years, our private existence has never been quite so transparent. The state, should it so wish, can read our emails, can check which websites we visit, can watch us take our dogs for walks, can follow us on our way to work…in fact, the possibilities for state surveillance are endless. And the chief reason for this is a spectacularly snide piece of legislation called the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Just hours before the House of Commons broke up for its summer recess in 2000, RIPA came into force. This Act granted the police, the intelligence services, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue unprecedented power to check upon all our communications, from intercepting emails to compelling internet service providers to hand over information about our surfing habits. So alongside the power to watch and monitor our real world activity (‘direct surveillance’), these state bodies could check upon our virtual toings and froings, too, so as to ‘obtain a picture of [a person’s] life, activities and associates’. The justification given back then for such explosively intrusive potential was internet crime and paedophilia.

As the Noughties progressed, and New Labour’s distrust of people deepened, so RIPA grew. Its liberty-snubbing surveillance powers, once the preserve of law-enforcement agencies, were extended – albeit in a slightly limited form – ever further into the public sphere. By 2002, 500-or-so more public bodies had been given the power to peep and pry, including the National Health Service, the Food Standards Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Charity Commission, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and, as it turned out, snoop-happy local councils. The number of organisations now in possession of investigatory powers stands at nearly 800.

However, quite why so many of the state’s tentacles were now being equipped with the power to check-up on people, to root around in their private existence, was never quite clear. In September 2003, as the issue of terrorism got added to the list of excuses for this intrusion, then home office minister Caroline Flint did have an attempt at justifying the expansion of RIPA: ‘These proposals are about vital investigatory tools being used now to prevent and detect crime and, in some cases, save lives.’

There is certainly no doubting that these ‘vital investigatory tools’ were being used. In 2008, for instance, it was estimated that there was something in the region of 3,000 RIPA operations active on any given day. Sadly for Flint, this was not evidence of widespread paedophilic depravity or terrorist plotting. In fact, what was shocking about the vast majority of RIPA operations lay not in what was being spied upon but in the sheer pettiness of the spy. Given that by far the largest portion of RIPA operations were undertaken not by MI6 but by those bastions of litter-picking vigilance, local councils, perhaps that is not surprising. As numerous reports have since revealed, over the past few years local councils have used investigatory powers to check for, amongst other heinous crimes: fly-tipping, dog fouling, retailers selling furniture not up to fire safety standards, cleaners pulling sickies and care assistants claiming too much on travel expenses. It was even revealed that Westminster borough council authorised a spying operation on greengrocers refusing to convert from imperial to metric measures.

While the stories of state snooping have been laughable for their triviality, what RIPA represents – a transformation in the relationship between state and civil society – is rather more serious. Effectively, it renders state intrusion into our private lives routine. No longer does it take something exceptional, such as grounds for suspecting that someone is about to commit a murder, for the state to authorise a stakeout. Rather, under RIPA, all that is necessary is for a council official to query whether a family really does live in the catchment area for a particular school – as happened to a Devonshire couple and their children in 2008 – and that family can then have their everyday activity monitored and scrutinised by the state. In RIPA, then, the state’s changing relationship with civil society gains legal form. We as citizens come to be viewed as potential objects of suspicion – and investigation. Our private activity, far from being of no interest to the state unless it breaks the law, is suspect in advance. We cannot be trusted, therefore we must be watched.

At the same time as the state’s power of surveillance, and its distrust of private individuals, has been cemented under RIPA, so the state is able to withhold those same investigatory powers from non-state bodies and persons. Thus while it might be okay for the state to check our emails and watch our movements – in 2008 the equivalent of one in 78 adults came under some form of surveillance by the authorities – for an investigative journalist to do likewise, to peer, for example, into the life of a public figure is criminalised. Hence last year the broadsheet Guardian newspaper claimed that journalists for the tabloid News of the World had broken the law when reports that they had allegedly hacked the phones of several public figures emerged. If RIPA legitimises massive, and – as the numerous tales of council-stalking woe indicate – unjustified state intrusion into our lives with one hand, with the other it makes the attempt of a private individual to do likewise illegitimate. To pry, to poke around and to spy is the state’s right and its alone. It denies to the private individual what it wants to arrogate to itself.

The continued existence of RIPA – despite the recent, largely bureaucratic changes made to the way in which local councils can use it – degrades those in whose name the little-loved Labour government introduced it. It transforms our everyday activities, no matter how mundane, whether that’s sending emails, taking dogs for a walk or taking your kids your school into suspect, possibly dodgy activities. By allowing so many with so little justification, to monitor our behaviour, to peek at our emailed thoughts, divests us not just of our privacy, but what that entails, namely our freedom to exercise our own judgement about how best lead our lives. Under RIPA, the right to make that judgement now belongs to the state.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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